Making the Most of Holiday Gatherings

I love this time of year, with fall in full swing, the weather crisp and cooler, the anticipation of the coming family gatherings and holiday cheer. But that doesn’t mean the holidays are not without stress or concern or just plain tiredness from all the activities. Here’s how to get through the holiday season without being overwhelmed.

Decide now what you’ll do—and what you won’t do. Figure out how much will be too much for you and for your family. For those with small children, you might want to schedule only a few outings or events with family and friends. For those with older children, you might ask their input for what they’d like to do.

Focus on making memories over checking boxes. In other words, don’t feel you “have” to do something just because it’s expected. Think more about what your family enjoys doing as a family—that’s what this time of year is really about—and put those things on your calendar.

Think about giving, rather than receiving. How can you incorporate giving back to the community, to your family, to your neighborhood, to your friends, to strangers this season? For example, we have the opportunity to host international college and graduate students for a Thanksgiving dinner prior to the actual holiday, which all of us (including our four children) enjoy doing each November.

Don’t be afraid to come late or leave early. When the kids were young, we often arrived at holiday parties on the early side, then left well before ending time in order to accommodate their sleeping schedules. By doing that, we were able to enjoy the party and not have too cranky kids on our hands.

Take time to slow down. If you feel yourself becoming exhausted or overwhelmed with your to-do list or activities on the calendar, see what you can eliminate. There’s no sense running yourself ragged just because the list says you have to. Take ownership of your time and put the brakes on when it gets to be too much.

How do you keep from becoming overwhelmed during the holidays?

A Bright Son Making Bad Choices

Q: My very bright 10-year-old son simply refuses to obey. He is child #2 out of 4 kids. He seems to take up all of our parenting energy. He spent a lot of time in the office for the first half of grade 5, often aligns himself with the trouble makers in social situations, and doesn’t seem to care about consequences. It seems that the problems occur everywhere—within our own family, at school, at church and with grandparents. I have never been a parent who pays my children a lot of attention, but he seems to crave attention (even if it’s negative) and he definitely thinks he is a “big fish.”

We had one big incident at school last year, after which he was in his room for a month, with nothing to occupy him. His behavior improved marginally for a short time. I have told him he has this year to improve his behavior or he will not be going to junior high next year as I cannot trust him to make good decisions with the freedom he’ll have there. I fully intend to follow through. Any suggestions?

A: Ah, the child who won’t obey is a familiar figure to us all! I know how frustrating this must be for you, especially because you can see the pattern of bad behavior and the looming teen years with all the potential for disaster.

A couple of things come to mind about this situation, but before that, I should remind you that a parent does her job not because she expects the child to straighten up (although that’s her hope), but because it’s the right thing to do. Thinking that you’re going to find a silver bullet that will make your child behave is an exercise in futility, so just don’t go there. You apply pressure (consequences) to negative behavior in the hopes that the pressure will reach a child’s heart and enact change for the better. But sometimes, we apply the correct amount of pressure, and the child refuses to bend. That’s because a child is the only one who can change his behavior—you can’t. Accepting that and still continuing on with your role as one who applies pressure when necessary is what makes parenting a challenge.

Now, let’s talk about consequences. You’ve yet to give this child an offer he can’t refuse. A big incident at school and he’s only in his room for a month? You saw “marginal” improvement in his behavior after that, but nothing long term. You needed to make a big impression (a la The Godfather Principle), and instead you made a medium impression. Think about what your son loves to do.

Here’s a real-life example. A few years ago, my oldest daughter needed a wakeup call (she was around your son’s age at the time), and I had noticed how much she loved to read. So to reorient her behavior, I banned books from her life until she went 30 days in a row without doing the thing she had been doing. Was she upset? You betcha. Did she miss one of the 30 days? Nope. Have I had to do something that drastic again? No, but it’s always hanging out there as a possibility. The beauty is that she won’t know what I’ll assign as a consequence (aka pressure), but she knows she won’t like it one bit. So figure out what that number one and number two things are for your son and proceed accordingly.

Also, threatening something so far in advance as not going to junior high is worthless as motivation for his behavior improvement. He has no reference for such a thing and therefore can’t care about it! So just stop with that threat, even though you’re prepared to follow through. If it’s not something he can visualize and want, then it’s not something he’s going to care about.

Finally, it sounds like overall you’ve lost a connection with your son. If you don’t already, start taking all of the kids out one at a time on a regular basis. My husband and I take turns taking one child at a time out for breakfast. The schedule is posted on the fridge and they all enjoy spending special time with mom or dad. Also, make time each day to connect with your son. If he likes jokes, find one and tell him after school. If he enjoys throwing a football, grab it up after dinner and play catch for 10 minutes. Make sure you greet him in the morning, and when he comes home after school, not to tell him stuff to do, but to let him know you care about him—even when he doesn’t want to talk much.

Developing Family Devotions

By Karen Whiting

My daughter Rebecca remarked, “My earliest memories all center around family devotions. They were my favorite times.” Devotions became the heart of our family life. Through the years I realized family devotions provide many hidden benefits.

Devotions build cognitive and communication skills. Reading the Bible enriches vocabulary and builds reading comprehension. Discussions help children think analytically. They learn to share ideas.

Family bonds grow strong with devotions. When we faced the devastation of Hurricane Andrew and $99,000 in damages, my children faced it with courage. We studied Nehemiah as we rebuilt, which covers both rebuilding the wall and the hearts of the people, and that bridged our needs too.

How we actually do devotions and keep going? There’s no set format but generally you’ll share scripture or a passage and discuss it. It’s more fun with hands-on fun added. We used a lot of materials and developed our own. When something didn’t work, we changed direction.

During our children’s elementary years, we included drama, science experiments, games and cooking. The object lesson format worked well. We invested in good materials.

As the children hit teen years, they wanted to dig deeper with adult studies on topics relevant to their lives. We used concordances, a biblical cyclopedic index and other resource materials. We responded to their needs.

What can you do? Here are some tips to make devotions work for your family.

  1. Buy a family devotional, journals and appropriate Bibles for each child.
  2. Be enthusiastic. Make a treasure hunt to let children find the new materials.
  3. Set some ground rules, like no phones or technology during devotions.
  4. Schedule time. Start slow, with 15 minutes twice a week and expand that when your family finds what works well.
  5. Use an incentive if needed. We stated, “Since God’s word is sweeter than honey, we can’t have dessert if we don’t have time for the best sweets.”
  6. Involve your children. Praise children for contributing. Include activities that appeal to each child, such as drama for the outgoing child, maps for the quiet thinker, and hands on fun for the kinesthetic learner. If a child states something incorrectly, don’t scold. Ask them to read the scripture out loud and talk about what it really means.
  7. Bridge time between devotions. So, if you studied Bible people who cooperated, plan a family project that takes cooperation and chat about how you’re doing something related to what you studied.
  8. Capture the memories with some photos or a family spiritual scrapbook. Post the photos in your home to show you value devotions.
  9. When things don’t work, discuss what can be changed or improved.
  10. Remember that children really want their parents to invest time in them and they will respond when you make sure the devotions are positive times and not lectures.
  11. Pray for God’s Holy Spirit to guide you.
  12. Be consistent.

I pray that you’ll find family devotions valuable.

About Karen Whiting
Karen Whiting is an international speaker, former television host and award-winning author of 25 books for women, children, military and families. She’s also a mom of five (including two rocket scientists) and a grandmother. She writes to help families thrive. She has written more than 700 articles for more than 60 publications. Karen writes for Leading Hearts, The Kid’s Ark, a radio network. Awards include the Christian Retailing 2014 Best Award, children’s nonfiction (The One Year My Princess Devotions) and the Military Writer’s Society of America Gold Medal (Stories of Faith and Courage from the Home Front).

Young Teen, Poor Choices

Q: This year, my 14-year-old son started a new, academically-driven private high school. He became friends immediately with his peer group on the football team, and we’ve allowed him some new freedom to hang out at their homes and spend the night a couple of times. We made it clear that this is his opportunity to choose the right friends from the start, because in middle school he had some undesirable friends that we didn’t allow him to socialize with. He has always been an excellent student and athlete, but hasn’t had much of a social life outside of school since we restricted his friendships.

Recently, we discovered that our son was drinking at one of the new friend’s homes, and that several of these new football friends have poor reputations. I am at a loss for how to deal with this latest dilemma. I don’t want to restrict friendships forever, but clearly he is not responsible in this area. I think the drinking itself is an isolated event, but he was bragging about it to some old friends at church, and they expressed concern that this is his new normal (thinking that drinking is cool). I’m concerned that continuing with these new friendships will lead to more undesirable behavior.

A: This is the age-old question that has plagued parents: How to get kids to choose the right friends. From family to family, the definition of “right” friends changes slightly, but for the most part, most parents want their kids to have friends who are positive and adhere to the family’s values in word and deed.

But that desire often conflicts with a teen’s desire to choose his own friends, forge to his identity and live his own life. As a teen tries on different personas to see where he fits into the high school social scene, he will often make mistakes and pick the wrong crowd or the right crowd for the wrong reasons.

While your intentions were good, I think you might have jumped the gun a bit to allow him new freedom without investigating whether or not these new friends were the sort that you wanted him to hang out with. Not that I’m blaming you for his actions—I’m just pointing out that it’s our job as parents to ask questions, hard questions, and to hold off on some of the freedoms (like spending the night, for example) until you get to know the kids in question a bit more.

My answer to questionable friends is to invite them to your house. Open your doors and have the kids in your basement. Check in frequently but not obnoxiously. Have them over for dinner in small groups. Talk to them—not grilling them, but see what they’re interested in. Teenagers respond to genuine interest and concern like anyone else.

For the drinking, I’d sit your son down and have a hard talk about underage drinking. In fact, I’d be grounding him for at least a month—this is serious stuff, and while he might have made a fairly innocent mistake, his bragging shows he’s aware that it wasn’t right for him to drink alcohol. I’d also call the parents of teen whose house they drank in to say this is what your son said. Not to point fingers, but to inform them. Then your son doesn’t go over there again, period.

During your short, but hard, talk, I’d also let him know the stakes—that you’re serious about his obeying the law. He might try to brush it off (“It’s no big deal, Mom!”) but you don’t let that sway you. In fact, even if you or your husband drank as a teen, you don’t tell him that. It’s not important to the conversation.

But you also let him know that you realize mistakes can be made, and that you will pick him up anytime, anywhere with no questions asked at that time. You want him to call or text you when he needs help.

Finally, make sure you are spending time with him, one on one, to talk about what he wants to talk about. We take our kids individually out for breakfast with mom or dad on a regular basis to reconnect and give them that personal time. Do things for him that he likes, make sure he’s contributing to the family with chores, and love him as much as you can.

Five Minutes at a Time

By Darlene Franklin

How did I rest in God in the constant drama of raising children? Five minutes at a time.

My daughter suffered from borderline personality disorder (BPD). BPD is characterized by pervasive instability—moods, relationships, self-image.

I despaired of finding days I could call good. Hours were easier to come by. Some days, I settled for minutes and relished whatever time God’s love broke through the clouds.

That experience came to mind when I asked a cousin how she had survived the death of her mother and the breakup of her marriage, a month apart.

Her answer? “I don’t know!”  She begged God to bring her husband back, but she knew God never deserted her. “It was a time of waiting and toughing it out, sometimes five minutes at a time.”

Resting in God didn’t mean the absence of difficulties. Both Jan and I tried to tell God how to fix the problem.

What changed was we knew where to take our problems. Only God knew the details of our days. We talked to Him about we wanted, because only He could bring about that miracle.

In the process, we learned something else: we trusted God because He never deserted us.

Intellectually, few of us have a problem with that statement, but experience can seem different. I sat in the balcony of my church, mouthing praise songs I couldn’t sing for tears. In that holy, wordless place, God held me when I fell apart. He carried me through the years following my divorce, my son’s teenage troubles, my daughter’s lifelong troubles, the double whammy of my mother and daughter’s deaths, and more recently, my failing health.

My cousin learned a similar lesson when her teenage son nearly died in a traffic accident. She told the Lord that He could have Macon. Giving her child to Jesus was the hardest thing she had ever done.

Macon lived.

While she waited, she could rest in God because she had learned to tough out the bad times, five minutes at a time.

Now a grandmother in a nursing home, I still have to take life five minutes at a time. And you know what?

God still is, always will be, faithful, for me, for you, and your children—five minutes at a time.

About Darlene Franklin
Best-selling hybrid author Darlene Franklin’s greatest claim to fame is that she writes full-time from a nursing home. Mermaid Song is her 50th unique title! She’s also contributed to more than 20 nonfiction titles. Her column, “The View Through my Door,” appears in five monthly venues. Other recent titles are Christmas Masquerade, Captive Brides, Her Rocky Mountain Highness, and Take Me Home. You can find her online at Website and blog, Facebook and Amazon author page.

Emotional Rollercoaster

Q: During many play activities, our 4-year-old daughter becomes quite emotional about anything she perceives she cannot do. This could be creating something out of Play-Doh, trying to draw something or throwing a ball. She oftentimes doesn’t even try, fail, then breaks down. She simply breaks down before even trying, crying and yelling “I can’t do [x].”

Moreover, when we try to come alongside to show her how to do something, she becomes stubborn and obstinate, showing no patience or desire to learn. The overall theme is “If it doesn’t come naturally to me, I don’t want to do it.”

We’re not sure if this is typical 4-year-old behavior, or if this something unusual about her temperament. When I’m around and my daughter acts like this, I often tell her, “In our family, we don’t say ‘I can’t do it.’ We try to do it, and if we have trouble, we ask for help and try again.” How can we help her overcome this giving up and keep trying?

A: I love this question because all too often, we gloss over or ignore or move past this kind of behavior—or get impatient with the child who exhibits it. But we miss many teaching opportunities and bonding times with our kid when we take shortcuts to training.

As to your question about whether this is typical kid behavior—it is. Some kids are more prone to this type of behavior than others. Usually, it’s just a stage, but that doesn’t mean you simply let her get away with it, so to speak. While you can’t argue/reason a child out of her emotional response, you can guide her in learning to overcome that response. For example, one of my daughters cries when she’s frustrated with herself that she can’t do something and has since she was a toddler. We’ve helped her with coping mechanisms to guide her past the unwanted tears and encouragement to press on through the difficult subject or project.

So here’s what I’d do if she were my daughter: Ignore her outbursts of saying “I can’t do X.” She’s responding in the moment, and it’s better to leave her alone to calm down than to try to encourage her to try again. Once she’s calm, you can ask her if she wants to try it again. If she still says no, then leave her be. Telling her your family doesn’t say we can’t do it is great—keep saying that to all your kids—but it’s better to let her figure some things out for herself.

But, and this is key, give her more opportunities to fail and try again by giving her tasks or chores she might not be able to do perfectly, or things she’ll need to try again and again to do. Kids always want the easy way out and not trying is the easy way. Also show her how to break what look like insurmountable tasks into small increments, like getting upset that she can’t make a dog out of clay. Tell her to start with the body, just work on the body, then progress to adding legs, etc. Some kids get overwhelmed by the big picture (can’t see the trees for the forest). When she’s calm after an incident, start to show her how to accomplish what she wants to accomplish, but try not to force her. When she gets discouraged, pause to give her a chance to recover. You can encourage her to calmness by having her take a deep breath, stand on one foot, do jumping jacks, when you see her start to get emotional.

Much of parenting is figuring out how much to push a kid—when to step back and when to step up. You’ll discover that balance as your daughter grows, and as long as you’re giving her plenty of love and a safe environment in which to fail, she’ll figure it out and learn how to move past failure into success.

Things You Never Thought You’d Say as a Parent

We all say strange things to our kids! This month’s original cartoon is inspired by Angelica Juarez of Imlay City, Michigan. While the cartoon depicts a little girl, it was Angelica’s 4-year-old son who, when she told him he was too young to go to Starbucks, replied, “No, you are the baby mom. I am the big person. You can’t have it—only me!”

Post your “Things You Never Thought You’d Say as a Parent” comment below—yours might be featured as a cartoon!

Appropriate After School Schedule

Q: What is an appropriate afterschool game plan for a first grader and third grader? Can you give me some advice on how to handle homework, chores and bedtime for this age? What type of expectations should we have?

A. I love this question, mostly because so many parents start the school year without even considering what kind of afterschool schedule their kids should have. We get so focused on school, we forget there’s other hours in the day that need our careful consideration as well.

I’m of the firm belief that less is more when it comes to kids and their schedules. As a result, our four kids do very little compared to my kids’ peers–and frankly, they like it that way. Maybe because that’s what they’ve always known, but I think it’s because we give them plenty of time to be kids–carefree and footloose, so to speak.

Here’s how you can come up with a schedule that will work for your entire family. Jot down your priorities as a family. For us, it’s eating dinner together and having time to relax (in other words, free time!) and having a flexible schedule that allows us to visit grandparents frequently and do things together as a family, and keeping Sundays blocked off for church and family. That means we tend to avoid signing up for things that involve dinnertime practices or that have regular Saturday events or games.

Our kids have lots of daily and weekly chores. For first and third graders, such chores might be loading the dishwasher, setting/clearing the table, taking out the trash, making lunches (and making their own breakfast), being responsible for their belongings, sweeping floors, mopping floors, taking care of a family pet’s food/water, etc. I have a chore book that outlines age appropriate chores in my webstore (only $2.99) that also gives instructions on common chores.

Bedtimes for these ages should be between 7 and 8 p.m., leaning toward earlier. They will be more tired at the start of school and kids need lots of sleep! Sleep should be a top priority, over sports and other activities. Kids who don’t get enough sleep don’t do well in school, etc.

Some elementary schools are finally seeing the wisdom of NOT assigning homework or very little homework, especially in the lower grades, but if yours isn’t one of them, then my advice is to stay out of homework as much as possible. I set an end time that homework had to be done (generally a half hour or so before the child’s bedtime), and then let the child decide when to do it. Some kids like to tackle it right away after school, while others need to play in the fresh air before their brains are able to handle more school work. If your child is struggling with homework directly after school, you might need to suggest a break before homework. Give the child space to do it, and don’t hover, etc.

One rule in our house that has served us well is that we never signed any papers or helped with any projects, etc., in the morning—that cut down on the AM chaos and also helped our kids to make sure everything was ready for the next day the night before. Yes, there have been tears when a child realized she’d forgotten to get our signature on something, but when we stood firm on that policy, the child learned not to wait until the last minute on things.

Overall, make sure your kids have plenty of free time. Play is essential to their well-being and academic success. I’d go so far as to say that free time for play is even more important than organized sports. Free play develops your child’s imagination and rejuvenates their mental and physical well-being.

What’s Your ‘Mom’ Thing?

We all have at least one—that mom thing we like to do for our kids. That little gesture that we use on a regular basis to communicate without words that we love our kids. For example, one mom makes her kids’ lunches for school every day. Her mom did that for her, and she enjoys passing on the tradition to her three children.

I do hair. Each morning, I brush and braid my two teenager daughter’s hair. Once a month or so, I cut my two boys’ hair. Sure, the girls could do their own hair, but I enjoy it and they enjoy having me do that in the mornings before school.

It’s wonderful that we each have a regular way we connect with our kids. The trick is not to have so many “mom” things that your kids aren’t doing things on their own.

Please share your “mom” thing!

A Child’s Frustration

Q: My 11-year-old son has autism. Recently, he told me that he should not live because he will never be able to achieve his dreams, that he will not be able to have a wife and children because he can’t have friends and he has problem to follow simple rules. He’s also said that he should not belong in this world because he can’t stop doing noise with his mouth even if he tries. He can’t stop putting his fingers in his nose, and everybody finds him disgusting. He can’t stop reading at night when it’s forbidden. He doesn’t want to do chores because it’s boring and he finds it really difficult. He said his sister is always on his back and she is not playing as the rules (he’s right).

In the last year he has changed and become more frustrated. He reacts to everything like it’s the end of the world, where he used to smile and laugh. A lot of people intimidate him at school. Tonight it crushed my heart. Any suggestions?

A: It’s always difficult when a child expresses his fears and anxieties in such a way—kids feel things so keenly and they don’t have the adult experience to know that what’s their reality now doesn’t have to be their reality tomorrow or the next day or the next month, etc. And they lack the skill set to enact change, especially bad habits.

At 11, your son is probably starting to experience puberty in some ways, so his emotions are likely to be all over the map, which means he’s not able to moderate his feelings. Everything’s a crisis!

How can you help as a mom? Along with the following suggestions, I’d also recommend talking with an autism specialist to see what you can do to help him navigate this time as his body starts to change and grow more.

  1. Ask him to identify which habit he wants to change the most, then help him devise a plan to conquer it. Don’t offer suggestions, rather guide him into finding solutions that he can work on.
  2. Share some of your own struggles to change something about yourself—how you tried and failed and keep trying.
  3. Read stories or books about people who overcame hard things by perseverance, etc. Watch movies on the same theme. The more you expose him to other stories of perseverance, the more he’ll absorb that storyline for himself.
  4. Stop trying to talk him out of feeling like he can’t have his dreams. Instead, ask him what he wants to work on to achieve those dreams—show him how to break things into small, tiny steps. He wants to follow simple rules. How does that start? By breaking those rules into steps.
  5. Also tell him that following through with his chores will help him in other areas, like his conquering his bad habits. Show him more clearly the line between cause (do your chores even though their boring) and effect (he develops a stronger ability to keep with something).
  6. Remind him that Rome wasn’t built in a day—that things take time. That he’s been doing these bad habits for a long time, so stopping will take time too.
  7. Above all, remind him in both words and deeds that he’s loved and that he’s exactly who God made him to be, warts and all. If you’re a believer, then reading Bible stories of heroes who fell but God still used them can be of great comfort to kids.